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Intisar Khanani – Sunbolt

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Battling the enemy, magicking them away.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 120
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-985-66583-8
First Published: 13th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 6th May 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Hitomi is an outsider in Karolene, which hasn’t stopped her joining those looking to bring peace to the island but does make her stand out to those she least wants to see. The League need to get a council member’s family to safety and whilst Hitomi is told to stay away from danger she wants to help as much as she can, even if it means getting caught.

Sunbolt is a non-quasi-European fantasy that heralds Khanani’s new fictional venture. Short and packed with subplots, it’s a little crowded but at the same time it’s a work of art.

Khanani has a way with words. Her prose is so simple it’s effortless. And it’s absolutely stunning. The text by itself has the ability to lure you into reading the book; it’s a feast for the literary senses and goes a long way to dull the effects of the less successful elements.

The novella is extremely diverse and bucks the usual trend. The story is set in a quasi-Middle Eastern land in an undefined time; there is enough detail for you to come to a decision as to the look, period-wise, that fits what you’re reading. The characters run the gambit from East Asian to Middle Eastern to Western to African – or at least those are the terms we would use (Khanani’s characters describe themselves by physical characteristics) – and magic and the supernatural is randomised. No one type of person is good or bad; the world of Sunbolt is very ‘anything goes’. This is not to say that the world itself is peaceful.

As for the story, it straddles the line between good and not so, and this is all down to the length. Action follows action and the story moves from one subplot to the next without returning to the previous as a book generally would. Because of all the running Hitomi does it can get a little wearing, especially as the story requires failed escapes to help it get to where it wants to be. Whilst, for example, the likelihood of Khanani returning in other books to the League is very high, for this particular book to feel finished one particular plot was needed. Had Sunbolt been a novel rather than a novella there is every reason to believe the story would have been excellent.

On the whole the characters are developed enough to sustain a novella, however Hitomi is lacking. It’s a difficult one. Khanani throws you straight into the action without any info-dumping, which is very welcome. She doesn’t mull over extraneous detailing – she gives you enough to form an image and then moves on. However this does mean that Hitomi’s reasoning isn’t particularly compelling. It’s believeable and understandable on a literal level, but you don’t get to see enough to care as much as you probably should. You will care somewhat because of Khanani’s attention to what’s important – it’s just this length issue again. On the subject of Hitomi, she’s easy-going which is generally brilliant but can make the text a little hard to read on occasion. There is a scene which is particularly violent and nasty for what it does – Hitomi’s mood change back to sunny indifference and slight humour is understandable when you consider that she needs to push past what’s happened, but hard to read from the reader’s point of view.

Khanani favours showing. You get a good picture of what’s around and who people are just from the dialogues and incidental sentences. There are no long rambling paragraphs. But the world building is strictly limited to Hitomi’s immediate surroundings. There are references to the Eleven Kingdoms and a political situation you only see from the chases and imprisoning. It’s third-hand info without the experience and, again, the length of the book is the likely issue. You will care about what’s going on in the scene but not the wider world.

Sunbolt extracts various elements from different eras, places, cultures, and myths, and binds them together in a not unsuccessful way. It really should have been longer but it’s a nice escape as it is. The prose is great enough that you can acknowledge the flaws whilst enjoying the ride – it’s all too easy to get lost, enveloped, in this book. The whole is very promising – it may not be a winner but it’s good enough and Khanani is one to watch.

I received this book for review from the author (Netgalley).

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Mikhail Elizarov – The Librarian

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Taking fandom a little too far.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 408
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27027-0
First Published: 2007 in Russian; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Библиотекарь (Bibliotyekar) (Librarian)
Translated by: Andrew Bromfield

In the mid 1900s, a man called Gromov writes several books that don’t do particularly well and are thus forgotten. As time moves on, however, various readers start to find an inherent value in his work. They form ‘libraries’ of people and these libraries often fight to the death to obtain original copies (the only copies worth bothering about) and supremacy. Alexei finds himself in this world; due to his uncle’s death he was looking to sell an apartment and was accosted by these ‘readers’. They want him to be their leader.

The Librarian is a somewhat ambiguous book that looks at obsession, power, and the Soviet Union in a darkly humorous satirical manner. Heavy on gore and strict in its dealings, the content presents a rather unique premise to study.

Elizarov takes the basic idea of literary interest and runs with it. The ‘readers’, as they call themselves, are in essence fans who have taken their loyalty too far. Elizarov essentially looks at the way people find meaning in books and heightens the effect, giving the books power to change readers’ lives. Of course there is always the unanswered question: did Gromov know about this effect? (And did he plan the effect to happen?) This is cause for some of the humour because Elizarov provides extracts from the texts for your perusal and these extracts are undeniably dull. Whilst it is never studied, there is reason to believe that Gromov’s work is truly mundane to the extent that it means Elizarov’s characters are stereotypical fanboys and fangirls. Essentially, we’re looking at the extremely dedicated side of fandom here, the people who find meanings no one else would, and whilst Elizarov isn’t laughing at this concept itself, the way it is placed on those of older generations makes it easier to accept.

So, whether ‘true’ or not, these people are finding power in Gromov’s books. Regular people who work in factories; mothers and daughters; old ladies in nursing homes. The various books when read in one sitting with rapt attention instil inhuman strength, dominance of mind, incredible happiness, beautiful (if unreal) memories and so forth. A lot of the humour can be found in the first section of the book, which reads like a factual report and details the sudden coming to power of a group of elderly women who break through the ward doors, kill all the staff, and take over the building.

This book is very, very violent. Elizarov doesn’t shy from the details, presenting battles in all their graphic detail. And much of the book is about battles, which means it can be hard going. This said, it’s difficult to become numbed to the violence here, as it can be in other books (The Hunger Games comes to mind). You may find it repetitive after a while, but the battles are all as horrific as the first and you never get used to it.

There is a lot of commentary here about the Soviet Union. I can’t pretend to know a lot about this slice of history and it’s fair to say you may feel as though you’ve missed something if it’s not a period you’re particularly familiar with, however considering everything I’ve said above it should be noted that there is enough to ‘get’ in this book that doesn’t depend on knowledge. The basic ideas are obvious and aspects like false memories can be viewed as possible propaganda.

In view of knowledge, however, the writing must be examined. Be it due to the original prose or simply the decisions of the translator, The Librarian is rather dry. It can be difficult to read and unfortunately the eloquence and rather exceptional language doesn’t help. It’s fair to say some of the points and subtlety are lost in the words and where the plot is composed mainly of battles this is more prominent than it could have been otherwise. There is also the fact that many of the characters are referred to by both their full names (and patronymic) and a pet name, and then also a ‘comrade’ name and additional pet names; it’s more confusing than your average Russian novel may be. This, coupled with the constant usage of full names and a basic lack of characterisation (this is very much a plot/meaning-driven novel) takes the issue further. The translation comes with a great many proofreading errors, enough that it does impact the reading.

The book changes its focus towards the end, and this is where most of the ambiguity kicks in. There are a fair number of possibilities but you may still be surprised where it ends up. It could be argued that it finishes without finishing, forever loitering on the borders of an ending, however this is part of the point and something to take heed of when you come to sort through your thoughts. Much can be said: should we consider Alexei the author of the book? Have Alexei’s dreams come true, albeit in a roundabout way? What is Elizarov suggesting by the intimation that all these books can be read one after the other?

The Librarian is an exceptional example of hidden meanings and messages; making the reader work it out doesn’t get much stronger than this. It is dull, writing wise, and it is graphic, and it is absolutely, incredibly, bonkers, but it is also a very good book.

Unique and fascinating, be careful not to let yourself be too enthralled by The Librarian; you never know how much the cost of such a love may be.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen – The Rabbit Back Literature Society

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Write what you know, having made people tell you about themselves.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 335
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-227043-0
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2014
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Finnish
Original title: Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta (Lumikko and Nine Others)
Translated by: Lola Rogers

Ella Amanda Milana, owner of lovely curved lips and defective ovaries, is a substitute literature and language teacher in Rabbit Back. Whilst the town boasts many writers, only nine have ever made it to Laura White’s Literature Society – but now Ella has been invited to join as the tenth member. Little is known of White, but everyone reads her children’s books. Little is known of the society but the writers are now famous. Nothing is known about the strange goings on in the library wherein the content of books is being changed.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a novel in a similar vein, atmospherically, to The Night Circus and The Snow Child and given its complexity, bizarreness, and otherworldliness, comparisons work best when trying to describe it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it works, much as it’s difficult to say anything definite about Laura White, but it just does. It’s all rather brilliant. The writing isn’t so brilliant, but as it is a translation one can’t really consider the writing the way they would normally.

There are many elements in this book, many themes, and most answers you have to decide upon for yourself, making the story ripe for discussion. It’s dark, the sort of dark that deliberately tries to hide itself and is all the more dark for it.

It’s probably best to start with what is apparent from the start – this is a book about books, about writing. It is a book for readers in that specific sense, in fact it could be said that the entire book is a plan for a book, for many books. You could in theory, ironically, take ideas from this book for your own, and I would say that this is one of the points. Jääskeläinen looks at the different concepts, the writing process, with a certain honesty than is nevertheless soaked in the strange fantasy world he has constructed. It is thus somewhat satirical.

The author turns the notion of writing what you know on its head. The writers of the Society, these geniuses identified as children, get all their ideas from the other members. A crucial part of the novel is The Game, a somewhat sadistic ritual in which each member may ‘challenge’ another, instructing them to answer a question about themselves or something they likely know about with complete honesty. To spill, as they put it, for fodder for the other’s next book.

So here we are with these ‘geniuses’ who seem to lack inspiration, ideas, and possibly the talent to even form the words. The questions ‘what is talent? What is special?’ are asked on a constant basis. Similar are questions of plagiarism and the extent to which a person should be allowed to write about what they hear. Jääskeläinen cleverly looks at his discussions from various angles, rather as his characters literally look at angles, pulling you along and back and then leaving you to laugh, or to be shocked at where he ends up. What does all of it mean? Are the authors really lacking in their own ideas? Where do ideas come from? And is there a point at which placing people on pedestals, seeing them as untouchable by our inferior selves becomes ridiculous?

And what of children, these young people who White writes for, whom the characters in turn give birth to for the sake of their partners, have but do not love, are incapable of having? Children in general form a large part of the book as Jääskeläinen studies the idea of children from an adult’s viewpoint, a particular viewpoint that conflicts with the wholesome way we are supposed to look at it. It makes you feel sympathetic, it makes you cringe and feel bad for the fictional children, and it makes you think. Detached from the usual emotions that surround the idea of having children, this book really makes you think and it’s really quite uncomfortable.

The theme of the infested, plague-ridden books continues throughout. You are completely on your own for this one, for it is never formally answered. It just continues, words keep being jumbled, stories are changed, and therefore books are burned. A version of a book should never buck the trend of the previous, it should always be the same.

Can you like anyone in Rabbit Back? Similarly to the characters themselves you may find someone you like for a short while before you inevitably end up sitting at a different table. But this book is not about liking people or getting on, and it’s safe to say that Jääskeläinen is using them as much as anyone else. In the hierarchy the author is surely top dog and that is a big part of what makes the book a crack in the fourth wall.

Is it all a metaphor for ideas and writing, a metaphor for story creation and difference? What’s real? See for yourself.

You won’t get any answers, perhaps there aren’t any. But you will have a fantastic few hours studying this book.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Andra Watkins – To Live Forever

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Missions, when successful, lead from purgatory to the afterlife.

Publisher: Word Hermit Press
Pages: 253
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-615-93747-2
First Published: 3rd February 2014
Date Reviewed: 29th July 2014
Rating: 3/5

Meriweather Lewis (a real-life explorer) is stuck in the bar of Nowhere, world between the worlds of life and death. This is his last chance to pass over – a child in 1977 is in need of help. The girl’s mother was granted custody but her lifestyle is seedy and Emmaline wishes to escape to her father.

To Live Forever is a fair offering that blends genres as well as mixing fact with fiction, but could have done with more work.

What’s good and interesting is the blending – history (social and your bog standard), fantasy, fact, fiction, and the road trip theme. Whilst it feels strange to be reading about the afterlife of a real person from history, you can see why Watkins chose to write Lewis into it as his time as an explorer and the mystery surrounding his death fit what she wanted to say. On a related note it’s recommended that you prepare yourself for the unrealistic as besides the fantasy the book rests somewhat on dei ex machina.

And it’s nice to see a book focus on a person you don’t read about every day. To an degree, Watkins keeps his story mysterious – an intriguing balance of supposition and silence means that you will read what Watkins thinks but then wonder later if you did actually read it. Watkins may have a fully-fledged opinion, but the book is more an introduction, an invitation for you to find out more and decide for yourself.

In addition to all this the book is successful at showing rather than telling. You do get a bit of backstory now and again but Watkins has kept it to an acceptable amount and the vast majority of what you learn is through dialogue that is bereft of info-dumps.

However the book could do with another round of edits. The language the characters use does not always fit their situation – it’s easy to forget that Lewis is from history because he uses language from our modern time, indeed often the language is straight from our present day rather than the ’70s, rendering it out of place entirely. The characters who come and go are all stereotypes and leave little to recommend them, most notably a pair of conjoined twins who are always ‘dragging’ each other across the room. It is sometimes hard to remember if the story is set in the 70s or if it is set a number of years earlier, and Em doesn’t always act her age, seeming to be a lot younger or older at any given time.

There are ellipses that go on to the extent that you would think the key got stuck on the keyboard, and there are many, many commas in the wrong places. Characters ‘cut their eyes’, which turns out to be bloodless. A couple of plot holes, not so bad by themselves, are unfortunately magnified by the rest of the issues.

Perhaps most problematic, though this does depend on the individual’s view, is the Judge, the bad guy. He is the bad guy, so it makes sense that he’s cruel, but given that he thinks young Em is his wife, his remarks are particularly creepy. He surely should be a lot nicer to the host of his wife’s spirit, especially as he’s willing Em/Ann to remember him. On this note of inappropriateness, however, it should be noted that although Em’s mother’s particular win in court seems unbelievable, it’s meant to be and Watkins will explain all in due course.

The very end invokes a particular Indian folk tale. I won’t tell you which one because for some of you that would spoil the ending, but I will say that if you do know which it is, your knowledge of it may make the ending even better. There is nothing to suggest that Watkins was inspired by the tale (indeed I only know of it thanks to a Bollywood film) but it does add a layer to the ending that is interesting to consider.

To Live Forever has a good premise and will teach you a fair amount. It also sports a nice dual narration that really adds to the tale. But, pun unintended, it could have used more time.

I received this book for review from the author for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

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Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games

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A dystopian future. An ancient-style blood lust.

Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 434
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-407-10908-4
First Published: 14th September 2008
Date Reviewed: 9th July 2014
Rating: 5/5

The reaping. Every year the Capitol picks from each district two children, a boy and a girl, to face all the others in a fight to the death. Whoever is left last wins and is ensured food and shelter for the rest of their days. This is the final year Katniss is eligible to be chosen. It’s her sister’s first. Her sister wouldn’t survive, but maybe Katniss can.

The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy about a deprived dystopian world. With a big helping of Battle Royale, a seasoning of Lord Of The Flies, and a side dish of reality TV, the book is an unapologetic violent young adult novel that brings horror, suspense, and fine characters to an often-lacking list of books.

That it is violent is of course something to be considered, but in a way you could say that Collins is respecting young people’s intelligence. Young people know a lot about violence and horror, with video games and advertisements never far from view, and by not treating her readers with kid gloves, Collins better aligns herself with her target audience. Yet, whilst violent, The Hunger Games doesn’t linger over the gore for very long at a time, only once spending more than a couple of pages on a scene that even then is told whilst narrator Katniss is hiding from it. The gore is often something the reader conjures up themselves – the first bloodbath is related third-hand.

The characters win you over, whether they are good or ‘bad’ (because the villains are only villains because they have to be). Katniss is a hunter, a poor person transported to a rich person’s world. She never succumbs to the damsel-in-distress syndrome that claims so many other intelligent young women in today’s YA, and the stereotypes remain flipped over. Peeta may be a hero, a protector, but the terms are equal. Despite the fact that many characters will die before this first book ends, Collins give each a personality. You might not know them for long, but by and large you would be able to take a fair guess of who they were in life.

The plot keeps moving; the pace is pretty fast. The author has split the story into sections, meaning the the Games themselves are not too long. (It’s fair to say that if it had been the entire content, you may have become almost used to the horrors.)

This being used to horror, this immunity, is a fascinating aspect of the book – the way Collins interacts with her readers. Through the not long but long enough Games, and also through the relative lack of (reported) gore compared to the numerous deaths that occur, Collins effectively exploits the idea of normality. What I mean by this is that the reader won’t ever see the violence as okay, of course they won’t, but because you get all the extra plot threads you start to see how the horrific practise has become acceptable to the city residents. And the part of your reader-self that is involved in the bare basic task of reading the book from start to finish does become somewhat immune.

Awful, isn’t it? To think that there might come a point in the reading when the horror ceases to affect us so much. But whilst this could be attributed to a lack of knowing when to call it a wrap on the writing of the Games, given that Collins’s book is to teach children about war (further information here) it could be said that this immunity was planned. (As I learned after writing this, it was indeed planned, as this interview implies.) It is such that you know it is happening to you and you wonder why you’re not as moved by it. Isn’t this what happens in real life? We see so much war that we can often just turn off the television, make a coffee, forget about it. Then something ‘worse’ is reported and the immunity is gone. And the cycle starts again.

Back to the writing. Collins’s text focuses on story and meaning rather than sounding nice. The balance of the sections works well, as said, and the build-up to the Games leaves you fully informed. The reality TV nature of the book keeps you in context.

Beyond all this it must be said that the book offers some true survival tips. This is not nearly as important, obviously, but readers interested in roughing it will find an additional source of reader pleasure.

There is so much to his book, both in-text and otherwise, that you will be spending a lot longer than I have here, discussing it all. And I think I’ve discussed enough. The Hunger Games is excellent, no matter the comparisons to other works. It has much to offer even as it forcibly takes away. As a reader you are in a similarly safe position as the city dwellers. Make the most of it – even if this sounds bad, enjoy the book.

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